Established in 1997 to recognize outstanding artistic achievement, the Charlotte Street Fund has distributed $107,500 in direct grants to twenty-eight local artists. In economic terms, these grants enable artists to focus on creating work, often providing means for experimentation with new formats and approaches. In terms of career, the award and consequent exhibition offer significant acclaim, encouragement, exposure, and opportunity for critical feedback. On a broader level, the Fund raises the bar in Kansas City, representing a goal for emerging artists to work toward and an increased sense of the city’s viability as a place for working artists to stay. As the Fund celebrates its fifth anniversary, it should come as no surprise to find Kansas City commanding national attention for the richness of artwork being made right here and now.
This year, the Charlotte Street Fund honors David Ford, Lester Goldman, Leeah Joo, Eric Sall, Kati Toivanen and the Lifetime Achievement of Kenneth Ferguson. Their diversity testifies to the breadth of work being made here, as well as to the expansive terrain of contemporary art in general. Yet while embodying unique sensibilities, one aspect these artists share is a hybrid or heterogeneous quality – a refusal to be confined or easily categorized. Rather, they embrace fluidity, a slippage among genres or media. A “photographer” pushes into the realm of installation; “painters” create three-dimensional works or blur lines between figurative and abstract, formal and conceptual, naïve and knowing. Engaging body and mind, their artworks require an active viewer to participate in physical play, navigate multiple viewpoints, or negotiate the competing and conflicting tendencies of a single surface. Complex as life itself, their creations reside in that fertile zone which is the in between.
A prolific, multi-faceted artist, David Ford’s efforts span a range of disciplines and cultures. Throughout, his work exemplifies an approach of culling and combining images and information from a variety of sources – a popular practice in the latter half of the 20th century. Yet unlike many artists, Ford does not borrow forms without concern for the contexts from which they derive and meanings they carry. Drawing together signs of “First World” and “Third World,” “East” and “West,” “high” and “low,” “beauty” and “ugliness,” “piety” and “sacrilege,” he constructs an arena for a complex dance of competing forces, a boxing match in which clash is exploited. Individual images and phrases function as the formal and conceptual building blocks of a fluid, ever-morphing and expanding language of which each artwork is one possible expression.
The stress between opposing tendencies ultimately forces reevaluation. Sublimation and degradation are inseparable as yin and yang. When a kitschy rainbow is painted onto a crude wooden cutout in el baratero (“the lowest”), does it become so pathetic and downtrodden as to be again beautiful, true, meaningful? The peasant woman at the heart of i love you is simultaneously goddess and whore, a trans-cultural Shiva derived from liquor bottle label who offers comforts both sinful and sincere. As in a pinball game, a gorgeous orange tiger, sailing ship and leaping flames compete for attention in BONUS KILL. Always proffering choice, Ford straddles between “I love you,” and “I would KILL KILL KILL,” simultaneously drawing us in and pushing us away. For an “infinite maquette” performed/presented on the exhibition’s opening night, he places a small plastic ball, bearing the hand-painted phrase “the past,” a block away, guarded and surrounded by props. On the sidewalk outside the gallery, a telescope, carefully positioned, frames “the past” in its lens. Where does the artwork exist – in the view captured by the scope, at the scene itself, in the distance between them, in our own minds? The gap between here and there is infinite, an open field of play. Yet like the past itself, that vast space is collapsed and contained in the limited frame of the lens. As in the rest of his work, Ford highlights the difference while exploring the connection. Offering intimacy and distance, symbol and substance, he seeks to upset the fixed equations by which we order the world.
Perhaps no artist in Kansas City understands better than Lester Goldman the possibilities enabled by exploding pre-existing borders. Long a major presence in the art community, Goldman has influenced students and peers alike as Professor of painting at Kansas City Art Institute since 1966 and through challenging exhibition projects. Yet while his work manifests a confidence and vision informed by years of experience, among Goldman’s attributes are an almost childlike energy, inventiveness, and disposal to play.
Once a realist painter, Goldman incorporates figurative elements in Two Feet, Three and a Half Hats and One Gifted Liar, though here they bear the influence of investigations into theater, performance, and puppetry. Inspired by an earlier painting, this work translates two-dimensional surface into three-dimensional presence, reinventing striped and solid shapes as life-sized actors in a perpetually unfolding drama. While conventional painting requires compressing forms into flat space, here Goldman’s illusions enter the “real world,” enabling viewers to interact with them physically and directly – to know them better. Further, the painting/sculpture hybrid is site specific, as shadows cast upon its purple backdrop become integral to the work’s completion. In the mid 80s, Goldman undertook a ten-year, three-exhibition project, The Latest Blow to Mirth, juxtaposing paintings, sculptures, collaborative performance, film, video and music. Offering multi-sensory, kinetic environments, he imagined the viewer’s experience as akin to wandering inside one of Joseph Cornell’s boxed assemblages. Goldman’s latest work reflects this will to create a vibrant, shifting stage, though here he succinctly channels that impulse into the framework of a single “painting.”
Goldman’s transgression of boundaries to open room for alternate interpretation surfaces in every choice he makes. A scavenger of materials, he understands the beauty and integrity of a scrap of metal, gourd, or brown paper bag, where functionality, wear and tear, and/or non preciousness lend a vitality often exceeding that of more traditional art materials. A found sheet of copper, marked with fingerprints, tells the “truth”. Vinyl fabric - pliant, colorful, and durable - is well suited to sculptural use, yet its life as the stuff of gymnastic mats or padded rooms lends other connotations. Dressmakers’ patterns inject bodily references into abstract paintings, while their cut lines and arrows contribute gesture, movement and directionality. Just as a belief in disrupting fixity once prompted him to pose a still model amidst a circulating rollerblader, Goldman’s work lives perched on the ledge between chaos and control, chance and essence, here and there.
Whether as moody interior scenes or sites of construction and demolition, Leeah Joo is drawn to multivalent moments. Focusing on the subtle matter of the everyday, her paintings hinge on a dynamic of simultaneous convergence and dislocation, interface and isolation. With directness and intelligence, grounded by a firm command of realist painting, Joo mines the seemingly mundane for its metaphorical resonance.
Residing at the intersection of portraiture, still life, and landscape, with a distinctly conceptual bent, Joo’s newest paintings incorporate her immediate environment as subject. Specifically, they capture the view caught in the windowpane of her attic studio, where bits of the world beyond – patch of grass, rooftop – mingle with reflections of the interior. Painted at various times of day, the balance between that seen through and that reflected by the window’s glass shifts from one to the next. A disruptive metal grille, filtering light and casting shadows (while also introducing a grid-like pattern that invokes the language of abstract painting), anchors the painted image to a specific physical location: the point between inside and out. Physically separating interior and exterior, domestic and worldly, confinement and freedom, self and other, it operates as a means of crystallizing the symbolic divisions blurred elsewhere. In this way, too, the grille heightens conflict between the window’s transparent and mirroring natures, between deep space (the view out) and flat surface (the reflected within).
By obstructing our view of any one thing, Joo promotes longing for whole, uncompromised vision. Making us aware of but also thwarting our desire for a pure “window” onto the world, she reminds us, as did Magritte in pairing an image of a pipe with the caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” that a painting is a painting – not the thing itself. (Both view and reflection are illusions, skillfully rendered on a flat surface.) Further, by obfuscating and infusing the landscape with her own self-portrait, Joo makes explicit her role as image-maker, as the filter through which the viewer’s experience is mediated. While residing as an elusive, shadowy reflection, she reveals herself before us as the author of our vision.
A 1999 graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, Eric Sall is just beginning his artistic career. Nonetheless, the assured, evocative paintings shown in recent exhibitions, including a major solo show at Joseph Nease Gallery in 2000, have definitively announced an emerging talent. In these newest works – his largest ever – Sall demonstrates a keen awareness of where painting has been, while asserting a unique vision. Their monumental scale, splattered backgrounds, energetic surfaces and the sheer physicality of Sall’s process attest to the influence of Abstract Expressionism, embodied in the figure of Jackson Pollock. Yet, savvy to postmodernism’s deconstuctive discourse (which argues against the idea of “pure” painting, claiming instead the ever-presence of real world referents) Sall introduces what feel to be tangible objects. Crisp outlines imposed on even the most abstract, painterly passages transform them into shapes that feel like something, thus creating a spatial division between foreground and background that mimics the format of a landscape. Here again, we are in an in between zone. This push pull is furthered by elements bordering on the figurative. Bleeding purples and blacks suggest delicate Chinese ink paintings of mountains. Flat stripes double as a shallow box, from which a densely colored field exuberantly emerges like the springing clown of a jack in the box. Another painterly form reads as a leg extended, sandwiching a gray object between two toes. Yet lest we begin to believe in these as representations of actual objects, Sall lets drips of paint flow over their borders. Thus collapsing the illusionistic space he has begun to create, he sets in motion a perpetual back and forth.
Kati Toivanen is emblematic of a younger generation of artists using the camera as a tool for creating artworks as conceptually rich as they are technically accomplished. Equally at ease with computers as with film, she moves freely among approaches, adapting tactics to suit ideas. This facility is evident in work created specifically for the Artspace, where the photograph serves merely as a starting point for sculpture, installation, even performance. Here Toivanen weaves together many themes explored through earlier bodies of work including issues of gender stereotypes, sexuality, play and games, voyeurism, a tension between the seen and unseen, the suggestive and explicit.
Toivanen has created an interactive space, inviting a process of personal discovery. Using a strategy of appropriation, she relies on familiarity with popular games and toys to draw us into play, then disrupts expectation. In lieu of the seemingly innocuous images we nostalgically anticipate are pictures of baby dolls, often mangled from use and abuse, or images of tangled, synthetic hair. Each presentation represents a specific permutation of ideas. A memory game, comprising a search for pairs, requires flipping red cardboard squares – an activity evoking a peep show, where fragments of bodies are revealed then quickly concealed. A puzzle involves a prolonged quest to reconcile hundreds of pieces into one seamless whole. The very name “Viewmaster” alludes to the possessive nature of the viewer’s gaze, as we peer through lenses to spy life-like visions held forever beyond reach. Through all of these formats, Toivanen explores desire as a suspended longing, seduction as reliant on delaying/denying satisfaction. (Once the puzzle is complete, it no longer holds our attention.) Disturbing this formula by means of un-idealized images ranging from alarming to absurd, heart-wrenching to repulsive, she forces an awareness and self-consciousness that counteract the escapist pleasure of play. The rigorous stylistic closeness of her co-options to their standard forms – crisp, graphic, iconic, commercially packaged – renders them all the more potent. We are left to question the nature of these games and dolls - and ourselves - as plastic eyes stare back, demanding a second look.
The second-ever recipient of a Charlotte Street Fund Lifetime Achievement Award, Ken Ferguson is an artist whose accomplishments are lauded not just in Kansas City, but internationally. As Professor and Chair of the ceramics department at Kansas City Art Institute for over thirty years, subject of a major retrospective of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and countless other exhibitions, and one who continues to make work into his 70’s, Ferguson has imparted a love and respect for clay to multitudes.
As a graduate student at Alfred University, resident potter and studio manager at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana, and through years of teaching, Ferguson mastered the craft of functional pottery, developing formidable skills on the wheel and in handling glazes that integrally inform his work today. Yet as his command of the medium expanded over the years, so too has his willingness to assert his own creativity. Functional pots yielded to works meant for display, in which the physical experience of touching an object is replaced by an energy so visceral it feels tactile. In the context of this exhibition, Ferguson’s work looks both timeless and remarkably contemporary. Too, it shares with the younger artists’ work a hybrid nature. The leaping hares of Basket with Triple Hare Handle effortlessly bind Eastern and Western influences, the spontaneous, expressive gesture and the carefully planned form, tradition and innovation, strength and fragility, grace and awkwardness. Udder T-Pot with Mermaid Handle derives its tripodal shape (three separate vessels dexterously fused together) from the traditional Chinese “li” form, the sensuality and sexual connotations of which Ferguson flaunts. Adding a half-drooping phallic spout, world-weary mermaid’s head, and glaze that activates the surface while suggesting both mossy growth and patina, he transforms the vessel into a lively, multi-gendered, multi-cultural stage, which yet retains powerful wholeness. This and all of Ferguson’s works teem with vitality, as formal prowess weds lyrical expression to glorious effect.